When it comes to civility as we know it, India is opposite land. Chivalry is dead in India- because it never existed in the first place. No one is going to hold a door for you (accept the occasional courteous and well-trained taxi driver) and no one is going to give up their seat on the train for the little old lady. While walking through the jungle on a narrow path, I have had Indians pull over to let me pass with a smile. I have also experienced the rare but outstanding service in higher end restaurants (to the point where the soft spoken waiter asks you if you need anything at all, with a coy and subtle wink), but those occasions are few and far between. You feel your own manners slipping through the cracks the moment you set foot in India, although unintentionally. The outside factors- the lousy service, the actions and influence of the masses, etc.- attribute to the shedding of your Western conduct and embracing raw Indian etiquette. Stoop-side shoe removal and eating with one’s hands already leaves one with curry-stained fingers and grimy toes, but it’s much more than that.
Before we even boarded our Air India flight out of Newark, as soon as announcements were made insinuating a near departure (at long last, hours after our scheduled flight), people began milling around the doors for the gate. Entire families with sleeping babies piled onto shoulders, ancient looking elders in traditional garb, middle aged hip looking couples in jeans, mustached men with briefcases all began to gather together closely, shuffling and bumping into one another, appearing casual but anxious. Now on most airlines, they board by seat number or section. Air India attempted to do this in the beginning of the boarding process: business class, people with disabilities or strollers… but shortly after those in need were settled on the plane, there was a stampede. People pushed, they shoved, they wedged into impossibly small spaces in between one another. They elbowed and stepped on toes. We all were getting on this plane, one way or another, but they wanted to be first, dammit. And we were still in New Jersey. And so, not really seeing the point in this haste and aggression, we found ourselves pushing back, if only in self defense. Our boarding group was first. We were standing there first. But why resist? We felt ourselves slowly losing our grasp on our cool demeanor in lieu of the shenanigans happening around us.
And the aggressive driving tactics that require excessive horn honking, blind passing, demanding the right of way, and nerves of steel are a whole concept of their own. Needless to say, you see a lot of tourists walking around with suspiciously bandaged legs and scraped up arms and motorbike accidents are likely to blame.
When we finally reached our little house, after following directions copied down from an email onto the inside jacket of my book that read like a scavenger hunt (turn left past little bridge at Kingfisher sign, green house past two small grocery stores, open patch of land with cows on left, if you reach Kundalini yoga you’ve gone too far), we were famished. We found ourselves cross-legged on floor pillows at the closest dining hovel within the hour and we probably waited about that long for our food, too. I am the type of person who likes their hot food hot (beverages especially) and the cold food cold. This means that when the Indian restaurant, with their one burner stove and two employees, prepares your food and brings out the dishes one at a time, one does not wait for their friend’s meals to come out to begin eating. After several attempts, you realize how futile that is. All of the food comes out eventually, but waiting for the other’s just to be polite is a lost cause. No one likes cold curry and tea… or warm juice and fruit for that matter. Plus, the flies begin to swarm and the chai tea acquires that brown layer of skin on top when left untouched. So there goes that formality, out the window. Sorry baby, I know you’re hungry. Wanna bite of mine in the meantime?
Then there is the hacking, the snot rockets, the spitting. All in public. At restaurants. On public transport. And, yes, it is discouraging to try and blow one’s nose on the single ply napkins that disintegrate in one’s fingers and nostrils on impact with snot. It does make more sense to not use toilet paper and napkins and tissues (forget about paper towel!) in a country that lacks the infrastructure for trash removal and efficient plumbing. And these are habits that are harder to break. But ultimately, you will adapt. I had a hilarious and gory conversation recently with my friend who visited us in Goa while in India on a business trip about just how exactly you are supposed to use those “little spray hoses” in the bathrooms and how you end up with a clean, but wet, butt. No one wants a wet butt. But a trash bin full of used toilet paper next to the squatter is arguably more disgusting. And this was a conversation that was had over dinner. Exactly my point.
Allison Cohn loves gold spray paint and nonsense. She also has a very difficult time sitting still and keeping quiet. She can often be found dancing like a fool when she isn’t hiding out in her mountain lair or gallivanting around the globe.